On stage, he is in cool command. He knows his audience, makes all the right pauses, and is self-deprecating, to boot. Off-stage, he is socially awkward and insecure. This is the warring screen persona of comedian Louis C.K. and one of the defining attributes that sets the first season of the FX show Louie (2010) apart from its obvious forebear Seinfeld. But where Seinfeld carefully preserved its sitcom configuration, Louie pares it down to something more human—and also more cynical. The show bounds between the comedian's sardonic stage musings and tragicomic real-life encounters, threaded together with a quasi-documentary aesthetic (which C.K. himself aptly describes as vérité) that joins well with a no-frills dissemination of world-weary humor. So committed to this approach is C.K.—who not only writes and stars, but also edits and directs each episode—that much of the content has an autobiographical slant. Even some of C.K.’s fellow comics turn up to play themselves (or rather versions of themselves), lending to the “day-in-the-life” feeling of the show.
But there is more to the comedy and visual stylings than disenchantment. C.K. occasionally offers up wry surrealism, which has earned the show comparison to some of Woody Allen’s films. Take the set piece from the pilot episode, for example, when a woman makes a helicopter getaway after her date with C.K. goes terribly wrong. Louie weaves bits like this into its deadpan, naturalist style rather seamlessly. It leaps from fantasy to realism as frequently C.K. does topics, often without direction or abandon, but always maintains a pessimistic comedic edge. Within his established stage/vignette structure, C.K. proves willing to go anywhere, explore anything, and speak his mind, especially concerning his own misery, which is fueled more by indifference than depression. His observations about the most basic challenges of living and functioning often have a stinging truth and irony about them. He channels the base impulses many of us experience (but quickly suppress) when it comes to meeting responsibilities and coats them in irreverence. Whether talking about sex or parenting, he is always frank and upfront.
Working within a rigorous narrative structure, C.K. explores various ways of blending his authenticity with surrealistic overtones. Even still, the flair of the first couple of episodes starts to wear around mid-season. This is likely due to the show’s rawness and the close proximity it puts you to the comedian. His generally negative disposition and candid remarks are frequently distasteful. In particular, his comments to and general treatment of women are mean-spirited and border on misogyny. But it’s worth noting that the show’s experimental platform would likely fail if it didn't include these elements.
I suspect what C.K. is after more than comedy (although the show is spectacularly funny at points). Unlike a good deal of other television shows that exploit faux-documentary elements, Louie doesn’t ride by on its high concept but on precise execution. It is an ambitious attempt to appropriate the stage-as-confessional concept to the television format. Whether it always works or goes down easy is up for debate, nevertheless Louie exhibits a distinct brand of self-inquiry that emboldens its profiling of the life of a performer. The material at times is exhausting—even frustrating—but it is also uncommonly vibrant for following the 22-minute format so closely.